Postmarked: Dear Jen (6)

Dear Jen

These Fridays, and our letters, seem to come quicker now that August and September are here. The days are noticeably shorter, and darkness hangs on the morning for longer than it did just a few weeks ago. Our small city is bustling at dusk–everyone seems to want to sit on their porch, or shout across the street, or cruise down Prince Street with their windows open, their music throbbing. It’s a wonderful time of year, especially when I think of how the winter will bring quiet, deserted streets and people walking quickly from here to there, shoulders up around their ears, breath clouding out in front of them.

During this time of year, from the end of August through the middle of September, my family has one thing on our minds: the Great Frederick Fair. Let me explain.

Sixty years ago, my maternal grandparents decided to set up a small ham and cheese sandwich stand at the Frederick Fair in Maryland, about 100 miles south of their Lancaster County home. They were Amish at the time, and would remain so for about ten more years. This was the late 50s, my mom was a baby, and I don’t know all the logistics of their fair operation, apart from the fact that the concession stand did very well for them, and so they continued going to the fair every fall.

Eventually, the tent where my grandfather sold his sandwiches and baked goods expanded to where my parents could set up their own hand-rolled soft pretzel store under its canvas. This was 30 years ago. 20 years ago, my parents took over the operation from my grandmother after my grandfather passed. And now we’re all sliding towards the year when I someday take it over from my parents, the third generation. My kids have all grown to love it, the fourth generation.

The Frederick Fair has always been as much a part of our year’s final months as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. When I was little, I moved along the aisles inside the tent, foraging for fair food. My grandfather would slip me $10 bills–big money in those days–and I’d spend it on carnival games, bringing back gigantic candy bars or stuffed animals. On those late fair nights when the air was cold and smelled of cotton candy and popcorn, my parents would make a bed for me on a lawn chair under one of the tables, and I’d fall asleep to the sound of my father’s voice shouting out his wares, drawing customers in.

So, how does my family’s history at the fair have anything to do with our ongoing conversation? I guess it’s all of our talk about building things that brings it to mind.

I don’t believe that when my grandfather started selling ham and cheese sandwiches 60 years ago, he had any idea he was building something that would financially supplement his children and grandchildren for decades to come. It makes me wonder what I’m doing, if anything, that will last through the years, that will go on speaking after I’m dead.

What are we building?

But after your letter, I’m asking a new question: could the thing I’m building, the things I’m creating, be constraining me in a good way? You wrote,

“I think of little Poppy out of diapers and off to kindergarten in a couple of years. I think, with joy, about the space that might open up for Maile with the kids off to school and the house suddenly quiet. No matter what might come of that space for her, whether more committed writing or paid work outside the home, I wonder if she and you will feel as I do: that part of what you’re building is a home. This might always prove to be a constraint. A very good one.”

Wow! What a thought, that the things I find constraining might actually be benefiting me and my family. I have been thinking long about this ever since I read your letter a week ago.

So. I guess this is what I’m wondering this week. Yes, we are building a home, and this bears more serious consideration as Maile and I continue to live our lives. We are also building something with these seemingly absurd, annual trips to the fair–tradition, family ties, a sense of seasons.

The question I’m left with today is in regards to writing, and specifically my fiction–what am I building with that?

And for all of us creatives, for you and Maile and me: what are we building with our writing?

This is no easy question to answer, but I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Warmest Regards

Shawn

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What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers has become an exchange of letters. Here is a list of our prior letters for Postmarked:

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)

Postmarked: Dear Jen (2)

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (3)

Postmarked: Dear Jen (4)

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (5)